Grand gestures are showy, but quiet, small ones are sweeter.
Today is that favorite day of retailers, florists and restauranteurs everywhere, Valentine’s Day.
Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve been very fortunate here with the mildness of our winter so far – unlike those of you suffering some real damage and hardship, we’re mostly just inconvenienced and fatigued. The kind of weariness that can be soothed with a steamy, creamy cup of home-made cocoa.
I nixxed commercial hot chocolate powders a long time ago in favor of the old-fashioned, off the package Hershey’s cocoa recipe that my mom used to make. Real milk, cocoa, salt, sugar and a bit of vanilla – all things found in an average kitchen. At home, it’s not really any more work, and the results are so worth it. Once you’ve spoiled yourself, you’ll want to keep a pint jar in your fridge at all times.
But then, one day, this really lovely post from Molly at Remedial Eating stopped me in my tracks. Something I had to try ASAP. And I’m so glad I did. This is one of the nicest, sweetest DIY gift ideas around – a jar of chocolate ganache ready to spoon into heated milk for a perfectly delicious, creamy, real cup of steaming cocoa.
Hot Chocolate Base (Ganache)
Yield: 2 generous cups ganache (enough for 2 dozen+ mugs of hot cocoa)
This makes a light ganache (1:1), scoop-able straight from the fridge. For firm truffles and heartier frostings, a 2:1 chocolate:cream ratio gives greater body and intensity. FYI.
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized, if possible)
12 ounces semisweet chocolate (3 – 4 oz. bars)
Snap chocolate bars into a large, heat-proof bowl. Heat cream over medium, until the first bubble breaks, then remove from heat and pour over chocolate shards. Let sit 5 minutes, then whisk gently to combine, 1-2 minutes. Pour into jar, and refrigerate, up to 1 month.
To Make Hot Cocoa:
Heat milk (2% or whole), as much as you want, over medium heat, until steaming. (Alternatively, for one mug, microwave). Add ganache to hot milk: I use 1 heaping tablespoon per 8 ounces of milk, though there are those under my roof who argue 2 tablespoons are far superior. And no, I don’t measure. Eyeball it. Stir ganache into hot milk until dissolved, 10-15 seconds, taste, and add more, if desired. Pour into mugs, top as desired (whipped cream, marshmallows), wrap fingers ’round, and give thanks for winter.
Who am I kidding? 1-2 TBS? No way. Try 3, or even 4!
So, if you’re still struggling for not-too-big, not-too-small DIY gift ideas, here you go – you still have time. A nice jar of homemade chocolate ganache for a steamy cup of ready-made love for your beloved.
And, if heating milk sounds like too much work, there’s always spoon truffles. Spoon truffles? You know exactly what I’m talking about – no double dipping!
I have been thinking, even harder than usual, about the affordability of well raised food for those who need it most, the marginalized and low income. And today finds a whole new group of hard working people struggling to put food on the table. Some of us are prospering more than usual, or are maintaining normal, while others are completely devastated.
Honestly? I wish I could simply gift away every single bite of what I raise. This is in fact, a mission driven farm, as much as anything, and the mission is to build a Giving community. Stories and news features of people waiting in lines for food is seriously killing me.
At Auburn Meadow Farm, I have always wanted healthful food to be available to the marginalized segments of society. The single parents struggling to access and afford nutrient dense food, those financially struggling because of illness who need clean food more than ever but cannot afford it, or are too ill to even think about cooking. Our seniors, who are seeing their pennies pinched by increased fuel, isolation, and increased cost of food. So many instances of people in newfound levels of need.
It is crystal clear that generations will starve waiting for the Powers That Be to create workable programs all Americans will agree upon. What is inspiring me at the moment is those people who are just sitting down, having an idea, and going out, face to face, and doing it.
Person to person, eyeball to eyeball. Simple solutions. Why not us? So, here’s what I’m thinking. A direct, person to person, extension of understanding, solidarity, and hope.
How it works:
- Priority is on seniors, those struggling due to health issues, single moms struggling to feed their kids, and our seniors.
- All meats donated are USDA processed, top quality goods – no cast offs.
- Update: Square gift cards are apparently a bad approach for this. Sorry if I confused you, but I’ve gotta go outside and tend the beasts, so stay tuned. I will create a Venmo or other simpler account for this purpose. If you have already donated, no worries, I kept track and will forward the money to the new account. Redeem it with the code BIGGERTABLE, and those funds will be used to gift Auburn Meadow Farm meat to those struggling from economic hardships brought on by COVID.
- Auburn Meadow Farm will make the most of your dollars by filling the need according to a discounted price scale.
- Accountability and transparency – this is a simple idea, finding its legs. A donations newsletter seems to be the most effective way to communicate our progress, though obviously I do not wish to violate anyone’s privacy.
I would love also to donate meat to an organization capable of turning the meats into cooked meals, easier for those lacking kitchen facilities and time, as a collaborative project. If you are that organization, reach out.
- The first meat will be ready to distribute in January, but funds now to pay for butcher and distribution fees will help kick this off faster, and enable us to go further. We have plenty of pork coming in January, and with enough help, we can be filling pantries by the end of the month.
- And, if your food bank or church is in need, and you are able to accomodate frozen meat safely, that is an avenue we can pursue as well. If you know of someone or something, let me know.
I hope you love this idea as much as I do, and if you would like to work with me to help solidify it into a regular thing, let’s talk! We need kind and helping hearts on the ground and I can’t think of a better goal for 2021.
What can I do today, before the rush is on, to be ready for last minute gifts, kind neighborly gestures, and unexpected visits? Make recipes for rolls of unbaked refrigerator cookies, portioned into gift-sized logs, wrapped in waxed paper, and stashed in the freezer for gifting or fresh-baked cookies in minutes..
Like many retro, forgotten ways, Icebox cookies add a simple, convenient and downright elegant trick to your pantry that will help preserve that element of snacking spontaneity we all love so much. They come in filled swirls, basic shortbread styles, with and without fruit and can be dipped in chocolate for an extra degree of fanciness.
The logs require almost no time to thaw enough to slice, arrange on a baking sheet, bake & cool. Thoughtfully wrapped with a recipe tag, they make a small and lovely gift. I like that since they have to be baked, you can save them for later, after the overload of sweets and snacks has passed.
Here are three of my current favorite recipes for Icebox cookies:
Salted Rye Cookies
- Golden Raisin Icebox Cookies – tender, crisp & rich, these are both rustic and sophisticated.
- Fruit Swirls – an extra bonus to this one is the recipe uses no processed sugar. Instead, use honey and dried fruit. They’re tender, rich and easily adaptable for a variety of flavors.
- My current obsession: Salted Rye Cookies. I love crunchy sugar crystals and was completely taken by this idea: these earthy rye rounds are rolled in a crunchy, crystal-ey mixture of coarse sugar and salt. Brilliant.
And, not just a DIY gift idea, icebox cookies are a great everyday pantry trick for anyone interested in real foods.
Fruit Swirls, no sugar. One recipe, divided into four logs, wrapped in waxed paper for gifting or baking.
Why do I love prepared snacks in my freezer?
- simple strategy for portion control – divide the dough into smaller logs and only bake what you need
- a quick, fun after school treat kids can make themselves
- something special on hand to feed unexpected visitors
- strategy to keep those overly processed commercial cookies out of your pantry
- your kid tells you at 9 pm they need to bring cookies to class tomorrow – no biggie
In these days of pandemic, old fashioned neighboring is more meaningful than ever. What sweeter way to check on your neighbors than by gifting them a thoughtful log of ready-to-bake cookies?
If I was going to name one skill to master to save money and really intensify the flavors of your home cooking, it would be to deeply start exploring the juices. We throw away so much flavor and nutrition because we don’t value that extra bit of juice in the pan. Yet we will buy a separate spice or sauce to do exactly what that discarded juice will do if you would only recognize it.
Seasonal fruit is a great example of how harnessing the power and flavor of those natural peak-of-freshness juices makes your cooking extraordinary. Most recipes solve the issue of too juicy in pies and jams by cooking the fruits down, and adding thickener. But reverse that thinking, and slow down your process, and I think you will be amazed at the difference.
Got my first strawberries from the local Amish farmer a couple days ago. Plain, simple, straight-up strawberry jam may be one of my very, very favorite kitchen staples. But last year, I made this. And it’s a pretty wonderful way to celebrate that unmistakable flavor of a fresh, ripe, local strawberry in January. And a really excellent DIY gift idea, if you are inclined to think ahead that way.
- 2 pints strawberries, hulled and sliced, or 1-1/2 pounds frozen strawberries, thawed
- 1-1/2 cups Simple Syrup*
- 1 fifth vodka, 80 – 100 proof
Muddle the strawberries and simply syrup with a wooden spoon in a half-gallon jar. Stir in the vodka.
Seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark cabinet until the liquid smells and tastes strongly of strawberries, about 7 days.
Strain the mixtue with a mesh strainer into a clean quart jar. Do not push on the solids to extract more liquid – it will make your Strawberrycello cloudy.
Note: If you feel your berries may have been a little overripe, and the flavor of your liquor seems a little flat, add a Tablespoon of strawberry or raspberry vinegar to restore the balance.
Seal and store in a cool, dark cabinet. Use within 1 year.
Perfect for sipping on a summer day, for spiking a cosmo, mixing with a summery white wine like Prosecco – don’t forget to chill the glass!
From the very fun book, Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits by Andrew Schloss.
Martha will show you how to make herb sugar here.
Tomorrow is Father’s Day, have you got a plan? Steak, steak, steak, kind of expected. But these unique burgers are something everyone will like, are less expensive, still fun and special, and pretty foolproof. Oinkers are made from unseasoned ground pork mixed with ground smoked & cured ham – a spin off that classic rural family favorite; ham loaf.
Traditional ham loaf is a little sweet for me, but I knew there was something modern and extraordinary there. So, by eliminating a lot of the sugar, substituting saltines for the traditional graham cracker binder, adding the smoky flavor only a charcoal grill can create, and topped with a spicy pineapple salsa, I am pretty pleased with this incarnation.
A brioche, or other soft white, bun is great, white American cheese is perfect, and basting the burgers with Stubbs Original BBQ sauce added a nice, tangy, peppery flavor, though I loved the plain, unabated burgers just as much.
I actually don’t eat my burgers on a bun – I prefer a bed of chopped salad or slaw with the salsa and rice. All straight from the fridge is a nice cold lunch for a sweltering day. See? No rules. Just like the best kind of summer day.
- 1 slice bone-in cured ham, 1.5#
- 1 pound unseasoned ground pork
- 1/3 cup crushed saltines
- 2 large eggs
- 1 TBS spicy brown mustard
- BBQ sauce – optional
- White American cheese slices – optional
- Buns and your favorite burger fixings – shredded lettuce, tomato, etc. I used shredded lettuce, scallion greens, and pineapple salsa.
Cut the ham into chunks, removing the bone, and pulse in a food processor until finely ground. Mix with the ground pork, cracker crumbs, eggs and mustard in a large bowl until well combined – but don’t overword the meat. – and refrigerate at least an hour, or overnight.
Form the meat into six to eight patties. On a greased grill* rack at medium high direct heat, grill the burgers for 5-6 minutes, flip, and gril another 2-4 minutes. Baste with your favorite BBQ sauce if you wish to add another layer of flavor, I liked the peppery flavory of Stubbs Original, but the plain oinker was pretty great.
Add cheese and melt, remove burgers from the grill when the internal temp is 160° F.
Assemble and serve.
Summer is time to put buttermilk on the menu.
I have never been one for drinking big glasses of butermilk, but I LOVE the variety of buttermilk and spring veggie soups. So refreshing, so easy, and something you can prepare big batches of ahead, so you can pull out a chilled glass jar of refreshing soup when you need it later. And, I would not lie about this – a pint of this soup for lunch will literally cool you down, and keep you working.
Did you know too, that cucumbers are amazingly nutritious? Cucumbers are naturally low in calories, but high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, electrolytes, and water. So do something your future self will thank you for, and put that summer protein buttermilk to work for you this year.
A glug here, some easy home made buttermilk dressing there, a great natural marinade for meats like pork and chicken, plus cornbrread just is not cornbread without buttermilk. And let us not forget buttermilk chocolate cake, and buttermilk pie. It will not go to waste.
Here in Pittsburgh, we have a couple local, easily sourced, independently owned and bottled choices for excellent, delicious, buttermilk. If you can, Pasture Maid Creamery is a single-farm choice in glass returnable bottles, and is low temperature pasteurized to retain the most nutrient density from the milk. Supermarket ultra pasteurized will last longer, but many of the nutrients are destroyed by the high temperature used in the pasteurization and homogonization processes.
Here’s my favorite, super-simple Martha Stewart-inspired recipe. Whenever there are very few ingredients, it pays to use the best quality ingredients you can find.
Martha serves hers in bowls, garnished with cucumber slices, but I measure mine into pint Mason jars, and store them in the fridge for a grab-and-go lunch when things get hot. The frosted glass jar somehow makes it all more refreshing and delicious.
2 cucumbers peeled, halved, and seeded, plus thin cucumber rounds, for serving
2 cups buttermilk
Coarse salt and ground pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
1/2 tsp granulated garlic (optional)
Roughly chop or grate the cucumbers. Place roughly chopped cucumber in a food processor or blender with buttermilk and granlulated garlic if using. Blend until smooth, 1 minute.
Season with salt and pepper. Divide soup among four bowls and stir in diced cucumber, or portion into mason jars – the plastic lids are extra nice.
To serve, top with cucumber rounds, a drizzle of oil, chopped herbs, or more pepper, if desired.